Science fiction can be many things, from being a simple vehicle for entertainment to a platform to discuss relevant and thought-provoking issues of the day. Since it often takes place in the future, science fiction also has the reputation of being a way in which writers predict that future. As I've said before, science fiction is actually not about predicting the future...but that doesn't mean it can't inspire it. With each passing year it seems as if we are moving closer and closer to the science-fictional future we can only read about. For now.
Here are a few recent scientific developments and news items that show how we are moving toward our science-fictional future. In other words: Yay! Science!
We Will Become Superheroes
Science-fiction comics and novels are known to feature ordinary humans who gain superhuman abilities and become superheroes. One of the most famous group of heroes, thanks in no small part to a string of successful theatrical movies, is the band of mutant superheroes known as the X-Men. In particular, the character of Wolverine, one of the X-Men members and recently featured in Wolverine: Three Months to Die, has a useful ability: He is able to rapidly recover from any injuries he sustains. (Having a skeleton made of the supertough fictional substance known as adamantium is also a plus when in your superhero gig, should be so lucky to get one.) Wolverine's accelerated healing process repairs damaged tissue at unbelievable, right-before-your-eyes speeds. Other comic book characters like the Incredible Hulk and Ghost Rider also exhibit this superhuman ability of self healing.
Here's some good news for people who want to be Wolverine, Hulk or Ghost Rider: The research branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (aka DARPA), is sponsoring a program to develop tiny implants that could give humans the ability to self-heal. Once implanted into the body, the pacemakerlike device would be able to monitor a person's condition and, if damage is detected, stimulate the nerves to help maintain proper organ operation, effectively stimulating the healing process and allowing the body to recover more quickly. It's exciting to know that my transformation into a superhero is almost complete. Now, who's working on that adamantium skeleton...?
Our Robot Servants
Robots are one of the oldest tropes in science fiction, and while it could be argued that many machines might be considered robots by the most basic definition, we are far from having humanoid robots being the affordable, ubiquitous and accessible companions they appear to be in the pages of science fiction. That said, we are getting closer.
Earlier this year, for example, Google donated 500 programmable "Finch" robots to the Chicago Public Library in an effort to teach the fundamentals of computer programming. Not to be outdone, more recently a library in Westport, Connecticut, has acquired a pair of humanoid "NAO Evolution" robots, the primary purpose of which is to teach computer-programming skills by allowing patrons to manipulate the robots' movements. The idea behind these programs is ultimately the advancement of the technology. I don't know about you, but when one of those robots figures out how to understand the Dewey Decimal System, I'm outta here—I don't want to be around when Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse becomes a reality.
Riding Into Space
I've talked before about space elevators...what they are, how they work and their appearance in science fiction. A space elevator would dramatically reduce the cost of sending people and cargo up into space. It seems that the realization of a space elevator may be closer than we think. In a move said to be the end of the rocket era, Obayashi, a Japanese construction company, has announced they will have a functional space elevator by the year 2050. They are basing that claim on a new development in carbon nanotechnology, which allows for the manufacture of cables with tensile strengths up to 100 times greater than that of steel. While they can create superstrong cable today, the immediate hurdle is that they cannot make a cable long enough. They can currently manufacture only 3-centimetre-long nanotubes...a far cry from design goal of having a space station more than 3,700 miles up into space. There are other hurdles as well, such as constructing the elevator cars and a suitable braking system. (You wouldn't want to slingshot your people and cargo into infinity, would you?) Despite these hurdles, this new development is a start. Maybe one day we will actually get to see the space elevator that Arthur C. Clarke envisioned in his novel The Fountains of Paradise.